When news came out this week that Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson did not receive any CMA nominations, fans of country music were left scratching their heads—again.
“Maybe I’d be smarter if I just played dumb,” Price posted on her Facebook page, a sarcastic reference pulled from her song “This Town Gets Around,” a stinging indictment of Music Row.
It was just another chapter in the surreal year of 2016. The singer went from selling nearly every last possession in order to fund and release a stunning debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. It debuted in the top ten of Billboard’s country albums chart and landed her on Saturday Night Live. By the time she got to the Newport Folk Festival, Price realized the musical highlight of her career, singing “Me and Bobby McGee” alongside its legendary writer Kris Kristofferson. Price will finish her summer appearing with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Sturgill Simpson during Farm Aid. A week later she will attend the Americana Music Association Awards in Nashville, where she is nominated for Best New Artist.
Just a few months ago, Price sat in a hotel room watching an old Saturday Night Live re-run. She’d just finished a spot on Stephen Colbert’s show. John McCain was the SNL host and the musical guest was Jack White, whose label Third Man signed and released her debut album. Price had sent her band home (“the boys” as she refers to them) and was all alone. As much as she thought it would be cool to be on the show someday, she doubted it would ever happen. Besides, she figured, they didn’t really feature much country music.
Imagine her surprise three days later when she received a call asking her to be on the show.
During the week’s rehearsals, news came that Merle Haggard had died. Price stepped onstage and played “Hurtin’ On The Bottle” and “Since You Put Me Down” in the country tradition that was for Price, a tip of the hat to someone who made a living playing drinking songs.
Earlier this summer Price stopped to play in the famed Birchmere Music Hall outside of Washington, D.C. Its walls are like a living museum lined with posters of the legends and luminaries who have played there. Merle Haggard seems to peer out into you to remind you of the younger look of middle-age he wore in 1993. There’s Gillian Welch and there’s Dwight Yoakam and rows that seem to go on forever. Inside the storied listening room of the main stage, Margo Price is also taken by reading some of the names written backstage. She shares how honored she is to be in a place where Ray Price, John Prine and Emmylou Harris played. By the time she does her last encore, a reading of Gram Parsons’ “Las Vegas,” it’s set to the arrangement that Emmylou used in her cover.
Price wasn’t born then, but with the middle name Rae, once imagined herself as being the illegal and disowned daughter of the great Ray Price. Margo Rae Price. It had a nice ring to it, she said on the Buddy & Jim Show, and for a while, she tried convincing people it was so. Price gave up on that dream when people didn’t really believe her, but could still smile that it made a great story to tell.
Price is a student of time and place and being in Virginia, picks out a special song for the night. As she comes onstage for encores, Price carries a folded piece of paper that initially looks like a note from a fan. It’s a cue sheet she casually drops onstage with handwritten lines from the first verse of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose,” the song Waylon Jennings made famous on Honky Tonk Heroes:
“Way down in Virginia
Amongst the tall grown sugar canes
Lived a simple man and a dominiker hen
And a rose of a different name…”
At the Birchmere, Price thanks everyone for being attentive and says she will do a song she doesn’t do every night. It’s the album’s opening track called “Hands Of Time,” a sweeping and panoramic autobiography. It’s the song that made you feel like you were listening to a classic country album the minute you started playing Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. The expansive song is allowed to unfold and develop over six minutes in which Price enumerates a life’s confessional– losing a family farm at the age of two, seeing her father’s spirit broken when he was forced to take a prison job, her move to Nashville, the ensuing broken relationships and the realization that alcohol is not the cure for her pain. “I thought I found a friend but I only found a thief,” she laments in a learned way.
Just when Price settles down and you think the story will brighten, Price bears the grief of telling us that one of her children has died. The storytelling that unfolds goes against conventional wisdom for what an opening track should be. The great detail is a kind of mini-movie that she lays out about her own history. It also conjures another golden age as the singer summons the sweeping, panoramic sound of country music’s greatest eras.
If her path from the farm to Saturday Night Live seemed improbable, perhaps it was just a surreal year. And to understand how 2016 became surreal, you have to go back to one night in Nashville.
“Why Don’t You Try Some of Your Country Shit?”
Margo Price had her heart set on it. Shovels and Rope were coming to the 5 Spot in Nashville and she wanted to open. There was one problem, however, and it was with the club.
“Your band is too damn loud,” Derek Hoke, host of the “$2 Tuesday’s” told her.
Price had been playing in the Nashville club for years in all sorts of incarnations. At one point she had three or four horn players and backup singers. She would describe it as a kind of “Joe Cocker trip thing.”
“Why don’t you try some of your country shit?” the club’s talent booker Terry Rickards suggested.
Price took the advice and decided to pare down to a small quartet. They played the show with Shovels and Rope. Hoke introduced them as Margo Price & The Price Tags. The name stuck and everyone started asking her to do it again. If it was an accident, it might have been divine intervention and paved the way for Price to get back to basics.
Price and her husband Jeremy Ivey had toiled for years in the blues and pop leanings of Buffalo Clover. The couple had struggled to get funds to put together a record and one day, he went out and sold one of their cars. When he came home and told her, Price hit a low point, putting her head in her hands and wondering what they were doing. The couple began to sell their possessions (including a wedding ring which she later got back) to help self-finance and shop a record.
She did have friends and fans urging her on. There was a journalist from Rolling Stone who saw her in The Basement and told her the magazine would review it. Price started using it as part of her pitch to labels but got shot down time after time.
On her way to Texas, Price and her unsigned band took a tour of Sun Studios. There they saw the x on the studio floor where Elvis Presley once stood, and which Bob Dylan was said to have kissed. She couldn’t help but notice the neon sign that said “Make Your Own Recording.” But as the tour group went forward, Price hung back. All alone, she dropped to the floor and kissed the x on the studio floor just as Dylan had once done.
Price inquired about using the studio but found it was booked. Price later took her four-piece in and they cut an early version of one track, “Tennessee Song.” The album was recorded in three days. Price had the support of friends like Alex Munoz, who believed in the project so much he offered to produce it for free. Recently Price was able to pay him back. Munoz, who had been battling cancer, surprised Price during a recent show in London, playing mandolin and announcing he is cancer free.
Eventually the record found a home with Third Man. When it came out, it was a stunning in its honesty; a retort to the Nashville establishment and a kind of vindication for someone who had been rejected by Music Row.
“I hate to say it like this but you really put your dick on the table,” said Nicole Atkins, the self-professed progenitor of psychedelic country, who brought her friend on a special Sirius XM Outlaw Country hour to celebrate the release of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. There was a question that kept pressing Atkins. In the face of everything she went through, how did Price not let herself get down?
“So many of my friends from my hometown were like ‘This music thing’s not working.’” Price shared. They kept saying ‘When are you moving back here?” It was just something I couldn’t turn off in my brain that just told me to keep going. What else would we do? The idea of giving up was almost scarier than what would happen if I did give up.”
Price felt she hit a breaking point and decided she might as well sing about the truth, because she wasn’t getting anywhere not doing so. She had one label that offered an enticing guarantee but told her she would have to lose the walking bass and fiddle. She told them where to stick it. Third Man didn’t ask her to change anything she made or said–and hasn’t said what to wear, play or sing.
In addition to being a great writer, Price is a curator of country songs. Recently she has been singing a song by her friend Stephen Knutzen who is stepped aside from the music business and is working at Trader Joe’s. He wrote a song called “You Can’t Drive Drunk (If You’re Riding a Horse).’” The song was inspired by an article in the Nashville Retrospect which reprints old newspaper stories. A guy went to a bar, got loaded and rode his horse back home. When he was stopped by the cops, he ran through the fields. He ended up getting tried and convicted.
Another is one their old Buffalo Clover bandmate Matt Gardener wrote called “Paper Cowboy.” Ivey remembers passing the guitar around asking his friend “Why don’t you play that cowboy song?” One day he and Price went back to it with their current band and sped up the tempo. They had so much fun with it they’re now considering it for her second album.
Price’s lineage to country tradition and history is evident at the Birchmere. She acknowledges “Give Back The Key To My Heart” is by one of her favorite singers. It’s the legendary Doug Sahm whom her husband had contributed to for a recent Kickstarter documentary campaign. Price reaches back in time to sing about the sexism Loretta Lynn explored and sang about in “Rated X”. The band also covers Jerry Reed’s “Swarmin’.” Price’s musical lexicon is vast. As Buddy Miller suggested on his radio show, Price, who recently turned 33, is older than she looks. “Inside I’m 75,” she responded.
Price launches into Jessi Colter’s “Why You Been Gone.” The song is a personal favorite. Price loves music of the old country and funk compilations and feels Colter doesn’t always get her due credit. You can hear the influence on “Four Years of Chances,” a song that explains a lot about Price. It was inspired by a girlfriend who was talking about a guy Price knew. When she said, “man I gave him four years of chances,” Price knew immediately she was writing the song. Musically it explains a lot. Like “Hands of Time,” the current underneath “Four Years of Chances” is a nod to how R&B and soul melded with country. For “Four Years of Chances,” it’s as if Price looked into a crystal ball and saw Janis Joplin making Pearl and went back in time to borrow her Full Tilt Boogie Band to record this session.
Price said it plays off what men take for granted and wanting what they can’t have. Price also sees it as a kind of love note to her ex-band Buffalo Clover. “It was ‘I gave it all I could… I put in my time’,” she explained to Atkins. “It kind of becomes a dual thing. You start writing songs and it changes into different things. You have to find a different way for it to mean something new to you when you play it long enough.”
“How The Mighty Have Fallen” was written in four-four time but the band slowed it down to give it more of a Phil Spector girl-group arrangement. At the Birchmere, as drummer Dylan Napier hits the floor pedal, the sound of the music hall is filled loud enough to feel Spectorian grandeur like you’re inside the wall of sound.
“The Ties That Bind”
“Would you like to see a picture?” Margo Price asks a couple of women after the show at the merchandise table. She’s been talking about her six-year old son, who is home in Nashville with her mom. Price is really missing him tonight, but being away brings back the lasting memories of the time she spent with her own grandmother.
Price enthusiastically greets everyone and makes them feel like they’re special. I can’t help but think of Loretta Lynn, who would sign autographs for fan after shows, long before there was a merchandise table. As Price signs various versions on CD and vinyl, the bleed of the black marker blends with her own sweat equity. Every signature is an affirmation of the belief she had in herself and the chances she took.
One of the songs that stands out tonight is one she and her husband wrote for their old band Buffalo Clover. It’s called “All American Made” and has a hook that makes it feel like it should be her next single. It’s something that has an aspirational feeling but also a sense of melancholy. And when she sings the line about Reagan selling weapons to the Iranians, it has a kind of unexpected resonance during the election season. It makes it feel like less of a historical piece than a reminder of the cycle of political follies.
When Ivey comes onstage earlier in the show he has an unmistakable presence. He brings her a cup of Jim Beam with which Price says she’s written before. It’s like the musicians’ equivalent of bringing coffee to your wife in the morning. He’d been the bass player in the band until he carried a pot of soup off the burner and a tendon popped out in his left hand. It wasn’t so much that he misses playing bass as much as he couldn’t play guitar, and work on the unfinished songs and streams of paper lining their house in Nashville.
Now he’s able to strap on her Gibson and lead the band through a rousing instrumental version of Jerry Reed’s “Swarmin’.” Ivey plays harmonica on “Hurtin’ On The Bottle,” a song he, Price, Mark Fredson and Caitlin Rose came up with sitting around the porch and a fire pit one night as they passed around a bottle of whiskey.
When Ivey walks onstage, Price smiles at him with a gleam in her eye. They have the banter of a couple that have been married for thirteen years.
“It’s not all flowers,” she tells the audience of marriage.
“Sometimes there are dead flowers,” he deadpans in his sly, soft-spoken drawl.
They then go into an acoustic version of “World’s Biggest Loser,” the song that closes Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and sums up everything the couple went through and earned to get to this moment. This is their song. This is the stage they share alone. These are the ties that bind.
“There’s not much here that means a thing
The house, the car, the diamond ring
And all of that, it seems so small
If I lost you I’d lose it all.”
It’s emotional, and it streams beautifully through the listening room. You can’t help but think of how only hindsight provides clarity on the choices we make. There was that day Price held her head in her hands, upset that he sold their car. Now she knows it turned out to be the best decision of their life.
Decisions, the support of friends and betting on yourself. And as Price would say, “God bless Shovels and Rope.”